Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Larry and Denise

Larry David is the smartest person I ever met, and I have met many. He came out of Dover HS to the summer Advanced Studies Program at St. Paul's in 1970. In that supercompetitive group of hotshots from around the state, Larry was not merely admired, but spoken of in hushed tones. Or laughed about, mostly kindly. Among that year's top physics students in the state, he knew more physics - and he wasn't in the physics class. He knew more math than both the Concepts of Math and Topics of Math people - more biology than those in advanced biology. He went on to PhD MIT - big surprise there - and last I heard (1990) was at Bell Labs working on some sort of low-temperature ceramics for which Japanese companies paid him fortunes year after year. A well-meaning, socially inept genius, which we have always had with us, but only recently have recognised have Asperger Syndrome. It leads to an interesting speculation: if Larry's mill-city school system had attempted to treat him, as we would now, would he have become, well, Larry David, the great Chiezu?

You can't accurately predict which ones are which when they're young. If you don't accommodate them and teach them how to work around different environments, some of them are going to just fall apart and never catch on in life. But if you do, then maybe you lose Isaac Newton. What's the tradeoff point?

Was Larry pleased with his lot? I used to think so - a qualified yes. When I was inviting classmates back for the 1990 reunion I had a phone conversation with Larry - one of my most memorable ever. He told me about his mountain climbing in the Whites and Adirondacks, his company softball and fantasy baseball, but finished with "Y'know Dave, I envy you. (This was undoubtedly sincere. It would never occur to Larry to say such a thing just to be polite.) A wife, children. I often wish that I had done that, but I just can't seem to have a relationship with any girls." Larry, I protested, surely there must be some woman in the AMC who understands enough chemistry to know what it is you do and give you something to talk about. "That's not the problem, Dave. It's that they can't keep up. I like to climb five, six peaks a day." I remember thinking Larry, any grease monkey knows - if the girls can't keep up, slow down! but I didn't say it. In 1990, I decided that Larry could know that if he wanted to, but was choosing not to for some reason of shyness or fear of intimacy or whatever.

I no longer think that. To a person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, it can sometimes be that the pace you walk is the pace you walk, because your goal is to climb mountains. There's not necessarily anything psychoanalytic about the lack - it's a hardware glitch in your brain. Whether it's a bug or a feature is debatable, I suppose. I don't know if Larry's happy or not. I'm not sure Larry knows.

So it's quite familiar to me when Denise, a high-school sophomore at church, comes up and says, apropos of nothing but with a big smile "Combustion equations are easy to set up, but harder to solve." (That's a positive comment about the equations for Denise). Denise plays the viola, BTW, in case you hadn't guessed something like that. She did drag some boy around a museum while on orchestra tour in Europe this summer, but apparently there was no summer crush involved. She seemed puzzled that I would even ask. Lovely, lovely girl, and in our made-up stories, the Denises and Larrys find each other and are charmingly if clumsily devoted to each other forever.

But in reality, the Denises don't climb mountains fast enough, and the Larrys can't slow down.


Anonymous said...

Interesting batch of posts.
About this one: I'm still looking for a Christian geek woman to marry my son with Asperger's and a good job in programming video games.
Myself, I now realize that had I not met my husband in college, I would likely still be single. I hadn't planned to start looking until after college. Blessedly, he found me first.

james said...

Sad to say, Aspies don't always have dramatic saleable skills--one of our three also has ADD. The presentation is dramatically different between the three, too: the way to deal with one doesn't work with the others. We're hopeful, but it is going to be a while yet before they're self-supporting.